« Blog for CLE Credits! | Main | Google Books Settlement - Deadline to File a Claim Extended »

A Friday Night: Reflections on the Critiques of "Would the Bard have Survived the Web?"

By Mary Rasenberger

The excellent op-ed entitled "Would the Bard have Survived the Web?," written by Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro (the Authors Guild's President, Executive Director and a member, respectively) and published in the New York Times on February 15th (available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/opinion/15turow.htm?_r=2), generated numerous responses and a great deal of controversy in the blogosphere. The op-ed took a look at the golden age of English theater in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when there was "a wave of brilliant dramatists", and described how the erection of walls around theaters (literal pay-walls) allowed theaters to charge theater-goers, which enabled playwrights and actors to get paid by the public for the first time, rather than only by patrons. When authorities knocked the walls down in the mid-17th century to silence the seditious political ideas they feared were being expressed within, the ability to make a living from playwriting came to an end for a time and so did the "explosion of playwriting talent." The article warned that if we allow the copyright system we currently have in place to crumble under prevailing attitudes and internet piracy, the explosion of creative talent we have today may likewise dwindle. A number of letters to the editor and blogs have criticized the op-ed and used it against copyright law generally. The primary arguments can be summarized as follows: (1) there was no copyright at the time of Shakespeare, so clearly money can be made without copyright, and (2) Shakespeare copied from others, showing that copyright law restricts rather than induces creativity.

The first point does not even merit a response, since the op-ed authors themselves describe how copyright developed a half century later, providing a new, more stable way for authors to make a living. The second point belies a complete over-simplification and misunderstanding of U.S. copyright law. Incorporating elements of a prior work into one's own is not necessarily infringement and has always been part of the creative process. Copyright law, as construed by the courts, has long-since accommodated this process through, among other doctrines, the substantial similarity test, lack of protection for ideas, facts, common expression, and scènes a faire, the fair use doctrine, and for older U.S. works, formalities that put a large number of works into the public domain, as well as the almost 80 pages of exceptions and limitations in the Copyright Act. As a copyright practitioner, rarely a day goes by when I don't tell a client, usually a copyright holder, that it is free to use elements of another's work in some manner or another. While the courts don't always get copyright right, they often do, and through the last two centuries they have demonstrated enormous flexibility in their applications of the copyright law as technologies have shifted, including expanding fair use considerably in a manner that reflects evolving practices and technological advancements.

While the analogy to Shakespearean theater in the op-ed was imperfect, as most analogies are, the point of the article was clear and an excellent one - that "a rich culture", such as we now have requires a large number of creative individuals - "authors and artists", who devote their careers to their art. Indeed, our Founders were wise enough to understand that a true democracy requires a proliferation of free expression, that individuals not be beholden to any patron including the government, and that this can only be achieved by allowing professional creators to earn money from their works on the open market. Copyright is a brilliant way to achieve that end. The Shakespearean era theater grew out of the literal pay-wall described in the op-ed; our vast, prolific culture today has largely grown out of copyright law, a legal pay-wall.

The Guild's op-ed acknowledges that there is a place for free creative work online; and certainly there are those who will create for free, as many of the responses also point out. Indeed, many professionals who make a living from their works often will produce, perform and/or distribute works for free for any number of reasons (marketing, friendship, philanthropy, or the desire to see a particular work "out there"). Copyright gives creators the flexibility to do that - to decide when they want to assert their rights. Yet that is not what the op-ed is talking about; rather, it reminds us that copyright law enables artists and authors to make a living and is why we have the tremendous creative output we have today -- just as the theater's literal pay-wall was key to the creative burst in the theater in Shakespeare's time.

Let me give you a concrete example. Friday, after finally having acknowledged that my son was too sick to join my husband skiing, I cancelled our plans and we found ourselves with a delightfully free weekend ahead of us. I worked late and, among other things, read posts critiquing the op-ed forwarded to me by my co-teacher at Fordham Law (of a seminar "Copyright Reconsidered - Authorship in Historical Perspective"). Pondering the posts, I signed off and decided to indulge myself for the rest of the evening: I went to the gym and watched a movie on TV. As I later realized, it had been a truly indulgent evening -- over the next four hours my two kids (ages 13 and 14) and I had consumed millions and millions of dollars' worth of copyrighted works.

First, my daughter and I listened to the radio on the way to the gym, switching stations to find songs one or both of us liked; we heard some hard rock that was too hard for me, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Rihanna (my choice --over her eye rolling). At the gym, she listened to her iPod, with a collection of about 2000 songs -- post-1990 alt-rock, punk rock and hard rock (all legally downloaded). I watched and listened to music videos licensed by the health club chain. I surfed between 6 or 7 stations, including dance, top hits, rock, alternative, rap, and whatever was playing songs that would keep me moving, some of which were creative and fun - lots of great choreography, dancing and/or special effects. On the way home, we listened to Evanescence (I'd been watching one of their videos when my daughter came to find me and we started to talk about it), and an Angels and Airwaves song that my daughter had heard in the locker room and wanted me to hear, on her iPod. She also played me a Blink 182 song and another sister band of Angels and Airwaves to compare the music.

At home, my son suggested I watch the "The Other Guys" on video-on-demand (a superb, hilarious movie). He listened to his iTunes songs (a collection of pre-1980 rock, also legally downloaded) on the computer while playing Wii Ski (which has wonderful artwork - it makes you feel like you are there on the powder covered mountain). He also watched the George Lopez sitcom simultaneously while checking out interactive ski trail maps. My daughter took pictures on her digital camera of our new kitten, then edited them and added special effects using iPhoto and Picnik software, chatted with friends on Facebook, texted others, all while listening to her iTunes collection on her computer. Then, we all got into bed and read - different books. (I read Just Kids by Patti Smith - a testament to the artistic soul and the difficulties creators experience for their art. Thanks to copyright, Smith's and Mapplethorpe's days of privation when "just kids" paid off and they both were eventually able to make a living off of their art.)

As spoiled as we are with an abundance of creative content, our activities on Friday evening were not completely atypical for Americans. I am sure that even those who object to copyright laws and believe that somehow art gets produced without it, also have iPods full of songs, watch TV and movies, read books, and rely on a large assortment of software programs, and would feel deprived without this "content."

The reason why I describe all this is because it's important to bear in mind that it took hundreds of professional creators who work full-time honing their art so that we can enjoy it to produce what the three of us consumed in just one evening. At a minimum, the following full-time creative professionals were involved in creating our evening at home, most of whom you can assume need to earn a living:

• Recorded music: performers (lead and side musicians) and song writers for about 50 songs, amount to at least several hundred people.

• Music videos: recording artists, professional dancers (hundreds among all the videos), choreographers, sound engineers, directors, cinematographers amount to several hundreds of people for all of the videos combined.

• Movie and TV: screen writers (probably several for just the movie), actors (who clearly added some of their own creativity/improvisation), directors, editors, cinematographers, special effects artists, sound artists. Don't forget the scores and accompanying background music, which are in addition to the music listed above.

• Wii Ski: visual artists, computer programmers -a couple dozen at least, I'd guess.

• Computer programs (iPhoto, Picnik, digital camera, cell phone, interactive maps, Facebook ... among others) - involving dozens, if not hundreds of people

• Books: Each one probably took the author the equivalent of at least one year (and probably much longer) of full-time work, plus there may have been ghost writers, and editors likely played a creative role.

All of those people make a living doing their work and had to get paid (in most cases, not a heck of a lot but enough to make a living) - before the big bad media companies who are, according to some, ruining the world with copyright, made a cent of profit. Although I paid for every item of content where payment was required, my amortized costs for our evening were maybe $20.

How fortunate we are. We have access to so much wonderful and creative art that brings us together in the ways we share and experience it. Yet we take all this content and the shared experiences it provides us for granted. Try to imagine our lives without music everywhere we go, TV, movies, books, newspapers and software. (What if we didn't have music, movies, TV, and books to share and talk about with our teenage kids? The arts afford so many opportunities for sharing thoughts, feelings and learning - and the kids don't even realize it!) The reason that we are able to have access to an abundance of really great content is that we live in a country with so many creative people who have devoted their lives to their art -- and they can do so because we have copyright laws that work.

What if we couldn't support professional creators anymore because no one could afford to pay them - which, as the Authors Guild op-ed warns, could happen if it becomes impossible to make money on content because everyone is stealing it online? The op-ed authors' point is that we, as a culture, have been lulled into taking that kind of creative output for granted, but there is no guarantee it will continue. While it's certainly true that there will always be people who will create regardless, do we really want to rely on the creativity of kids, academics, moonlighters and retirees, or, blogs for our culture? Without copyright, we certainly wouldn't have anyone to underwrite the significant costs of creating film, videos, computer games or software - so just say good bye altogether to those arts. There are few creators who could afford the time to write a book, write or record original music, or choreograph if they had to find other ways to make a living.

Copyright propelled a huge explosion of creative output in America. The production of our creative works is so vastly more complex than any patronage system could muster, even if we were willing to give up expressive and artistic freedom - which we are not. Furthermore, creativity is one of the things we are really good at in this country. We excel at teaching our kids to think creatively in and out of school, and as a society at large. As a result, copyrighted works are one of our largest exports. Let's celebrate that creativity. Let's not let rhetoric and the imperfections of current copyright law diminish it. Rather, let's learn from the past and help steer copyright law so that it continues to morph to accommodate the evolving technologies and practices of our arts today.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

About

This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 23, 2011 3:29 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Blog for CLE Credits!.

The next post in this blog is Google Books Settlement - Deadline to File a Claim Extended.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.